Egypt: Back to the Future

It is three years and two days since the uprising that eventually overthrew Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak began, on January 25, 2011. Mubarak’s ouster was seen as the end of almost 60 years of military-backed autocracy and the dawning of a new Egyptian democracy, although the particular revolt that led to his removal was motivated at least as much by a collapsing economy as it was by any frustration with Egypt’s political system. No longer would some unaccountable strongman rule Egypt based on his own arbitrary whims; from now on, Egypt would be governed by her people, and Egyptian governments would be accountable to the law. Then they made the mistake of holding elections. In this Islamic nation, tasting democracy for the first time after decades of foreign rule (the Ottomans, then the British) combined with and then succeeded by a series of incompetent and unpopular monarchs, who were in turn followed by an increasingly unpopular military dictatorship, Egypt’s Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, won the elections, first for parliament and then, under Mohammed Morsi, for the presidency.

Why did this happen, you ask? Well, it’s not really that complicated and it’s certainly not indicative of some systemic incompatibility between Muslim societies and democracy.

The bottom line is that, for the duration of Egypt’s ~60 years of military dictatorship, from Gamal Abdel Nasser (who, admittedly, was popular) to Anwar Sadat (meh) to Mubarak (really pretty unpopular, especially at the end), the Muslim Brotherhood was working underground to resist the excesses of the regime and articulate a different way forward for Egypt. They were building up networks of supporters and sympathizers and even bringing charitable aid to those who were struggling in Egypt’s fragile and badly managed economy. The Muslim Brotherhood was on the ground doing all this stuff while Egyptian liberals were lobbing complaints at the Mubarak regime from London and Paris. When the dictator falls, are you going to vote for the people who have been standing up to him for 30 years or the folks who spent those 30 years having meetings of rich Egyptian expats to decry the situation back home, and writing sternly-worded op-eds from whatever European capital they happened to be touring that week? Heck, those liberals couldn’t (and still can’t, it seems) create a credible political party, certainly not one that could stand against the Brotherhood’s organization, built over decades and tested by harsh regime repression for most of that time. They didn’t stand a chance.

Now, that’s not to lay all the blame on Egypt’s fractured and disconnected liberals. Everyone seems to have recognized that these structural imbalances existed before the elections were held, and the Brotherhood initially pledged not to run for more than about a third of the new parliament, and said that it would not field a presidential candidate. Those pledges went out the window pretty quickly, and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party ran everywhere and, obviously since he won, did field a presidential candidate. They were able to renege on these promises in part because, for some reason, the decision was made not to implement a new constitution until after the elections had been held, meaning that the elections were conducted in the absence of any overriding law. This is the reason why, when Egypt’s Supreme Court later ruled the parliamentary elections invalid (seats that were supposed to be contested individually had been allocated by party instead), Morsi simply overruled the court and seated the parliament anyway. There was no law to determine who had the final say.

Increasingly, Morsi began to govern as a dictator in his own right, one who wasn’t all that interested in the rule of law or in preserving democratic processes. When it looked like the court would attempt to dissolve parliament again, Morsi declared that he would operate above the law (such as it was) until the new constitution was ratified, and then he and the Brotherhood forced through a constitution that passed a referendum with 64% in favor, but with only 33% turnout. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood’s impressive organization, the one that had so easily adapted itself from outlaw opposition group to leading political party, couldn’t help the Brotherhood when it came time to exercise power, and under their government Egypt’s economy continued to flounder. Angered by the Brotherhood’s increasingly majoritarian style of governance and its utter incompetence when it came to actually governing the country, Egyptians took to the streets again starting in November 2012, in massive protests against Morsi and the Brotherhood that would last through the following June and see several hundred people killed and thousands injured in clashes between protesters and police/MB paramilitaries. Finally, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) stepped in under its chairman (and defense minister), General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, ousted Morsi on July 3, 2013, and replaced the elected government with a collection of appointed secular technocrats. This appointed Egyptian government has been keen to insist that what the military did on July 3 was not a coup but instead simply a response to the will of the people, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably not a popular revolution. They’ve also been insisting that the military has no intention of running Egypt anymore, but…well, let’s see. For as many Egyptians as were killed and injured in clashes while Morsi was in charge, many more have been killed or wounded since the military takeover and subsequent crackdown against the Brotherhood (one particularly violent week saw 900 or more people killed) and, really, against any public protests at all.

So now Egypt, freed from the military dictatorship of Mubarak and the religious theocratic intolerance of the Muslim Brotherhood, stands on the brink of a new birth of freedom. HAHA, just kidding. It’s been clear for a while now, to anybody who wasn’t pushing an agenda, that General Sisi is the real power in Egypt, which is a little odd given that he runs the military that has no interest in running Egypt. He’s explained how, when he was Morsi’s Defense Minister, he warned Morsi that things were falling apart but, you know, some people just won’t listen. Great efforts have been made to cast Sisi as the heir to the still-beloved Nasser, some of them really laugh-out-loud ridiculous:

Did you know that this little boy being greeted by Nasser was Abdel Fattah el-Sisi? Wait, you want "proof"? What are you, some kinda Commie Brotherhood sympathizer? (via)
Did you know that this little boy being greeted by Nasser was Abdel Fattah el-Sisi? It sure is! Wait, you want “proof”? What are you, some kinda Commie Brotherhood sympathizer? (via)

Speculation about Sisi’s presidential ambition has been high since Morsi was overthrown, and he’s always played very coy about it, expressing his total lack of ambition for the office while also allowing for the possibility that, you know, Egypt and her people might need him so much that he’d have no choice but to run for the office. Well, “run” for the office; there’s no chance he’ll lose an election. Why do I say that? Well, for one thing the Egyptian media, state-run and private both, is almost uniformly lined up in support of pretty much anything Sisi does, and there’s no reason to believe they’d jump out of the tank if he runs for the presidency. For another thing, the January 14-15 referendum on the new Egyptian constitution, the one that has now replaced the constitution that was implemented when Morsi was in office, probably offers a view as to how a future presidential election will go. Turnout was slightly higher than it had been for the 2012 constitution (38%), but that turnout was much more unevenly weighed toward urban voters than it was in 2012; there was very low turnout in rural areas and, somewhat worrisome for Sisi and company, very low turnout among young people. Oh, and the thing passed with 98.1% support. Now, I don’t want to suggest that 98% support is indicative of a show election, but Bashar Assad “won” re-election in 2007 with only 97.6% support, so, yeah. The Brotherhood has been banned and declared a terrorist group, not a great sign for open debate and free expression, and there are reports of activists being arrested while campaigning against the referendum.

This gets us caught up to today, when several developments seemed to indicate that Sisi is on the verge of declaring his candidacy for the presidency. Well, actually, this started yesterday, when current (interim) President Adly Mansour announced that Egypt will hold presidential elections before it holds parliamentary elections. Now, this isn’t exactly the order you’d expect for a country that was on the verge of real democratic reform, where you’d typically expect the elected legislature to take a little precedence over the executive. But, on the other hand, it’s just the right order for a country that’s planning on installing a brand new military strongman in a disproportionately powerful presidency! Then, today, Mansour announced that Sisi had received a promotion from General to Field Marshal, the highest rank in the Egyptian military. You might expect someone to get a promotion like this for, you know, seeing actual combat (although history says differently), but I guess in Sisi’s case he’s being honored for bravely facing down Egypt’s fleeting chances of democratic reform, or maybe it was for defending the SCAF’s funny little habit of administering forced “virginity tests” to detained female protesters. Then the SCAF announced that, hey, they’d all taken a vote, and they decided that it would be really swell if Sisi did in fact run, which must have come as a great surprise to Sisi, who is only the chair of the SCAF. There was some discrepancy in reporting SCAF’s statement, specifically whether the council had “authorized” Sisi to run or had “mandated” it, but this piece (Arabic) in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram has the SCAF describing Sisi’s candidacy for the presidency as taklifan wa iltizaman, “an obligation and a necessity” (or “mandate and obligation” if you prefer).

So it looks like Egypt is on the cusp of replacing its military-backed, former general-turned-unaccountable president with…a military-backed, soon-to-be-former field marshal-turned possibly accountable president. Progress! Although, considering that independent observers have argued that the new constitution makes the Egyptian military “a state unto itself,” legally accountable to no civilian authority, it’s not at all clear to whom Sisi, whose base of support is obviously going to be strongest in that unaccountable military, would himself be accountable if push ever came to shove. So hey, Egypt, meet the new boss: pretty much the same as the old boss.

It's a little-known historical fact that all reluctant heroes of democracy eventually get to have their image placed on a lighter (via)
It’s a little-known historical fact that all reluctant heroes of democracy eventually get to have their image placed on a lighter (via)

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